It’s good to be here again, isn’t it, at this time of the year, turning the liturgical calendar to a new season? I wrote this post last year and thought it might do, with my apologies for the repetition, to use it again.
Lent was not part of my experience growing up in a Mennonite church. It was something that “others” did (read: Catholics), and when one is young, what those others do often seems vastly inferior to what one’s own people do. We celebrated Good Friday and Easter and that was enough. Lent had an aura of gloominess and “works righteousness” about it, and we were beyond all that striving and uncertainty and climbing the stairs to heaven on our knees. (I speak as a child.)
But in the meanwhile, many Mennonite churches, including my own, adopted various practices of the liturgical calendar, and I’ve come to appreciate Lent’s invitation to reflection, to deep consideration of Christ and the cross, to give up or to take on. To see oneself as one is: as in the words of Thomas Merton, “I walk from region to region of my soul and I discover that I am a bombed city.” To hear oneself named “Beloved” in the midst of that desolation.
One can do this any time, of course, but Ash Wednesday with its formal beginning, and the six Sundays leading up to Easter with their liturgies and sermons and reminders are helps along the way.
So it’s a good time. But one of the things I like best about Lent is that it’s not a big deal in the wider culture. It’s not commercial. Having ashes imposed (I love that word for this ritual) to mark repentance and awareness of being “dust” seems by now, in fact, the strange activity of a strange minority.
Oh I know Mardi Gras is a big party and that many people participate in some form of Lent. I also know that Lent can take on a kind of trendiness. Just the other day I caught myself asking someone — casually, as if inquiring about the latest flavours at Starbucks — what they were giving up for Lent. As if it was any of my business. (It’s a fast, isn’t it?)
But mostly, Christians observe this odd season quietly, almost underground, like seeds swelling for the resurrection, while the real days get longer and winter turns to spring, while the “news” plays out in the world, while ordinary life continues. There are no cards to send or gifts to buy. No advertisements guilting us into spending, like at Christmas or the Hallmark holidays. No aisles of Lent toys or candies. No Lent carols playing in the malls. And nobody shouting “Happy Lent!”